CHAPTER 8: CONSIDERATION

Come to my office. We need to talk.

This was the sum total of the message I discovered in my voicemail. No hello. No goodbye. No identification. None of these things were necessary for Sam Aiello, attorney-at-law. Sam went through life ordering the world around according to his whims, and the world largely obeyed.

I hated the feeling of being summoned, but I obeyed too. If Sam was commanding my presence, then it was important. Time was money and both were too precious to Sam to waste. He charged by the minute.

The corporate law offices of Aiello, Crowe, Eldritch and Fay occupied an entire upper floor of the Lyric Opera house: a throne-shaped office building overlooking the river. Sam’s office commanded the southwest corner of the building, overlooking the Madison Avenue bridge where a tide of commuters made their daily procession into the Loop from the city’s two train stations.

Sam kept no obvious personal effects. There were no photos on his desk and no diplomas on his wall even though I knew he’d gone to Princeton and was proud of it. Instead, his life was notched out in trophies—some given as gifts, some taken as spoils of war: a bottle of impossibly old Scotch, a stained-glass window from a burnt-out Church, an enormous poster of Erte’s Salome dancing the dance of seven veils in a gilt frame.

“So, you’re back.”

Sam contrived to sound glad to see me. He appeared in the room as if he’d always been there, looking like he might have just stepped off the front cover of a men’s magazine. He was impeccably tailored, every inch of him rendered in high gloss. A man of wealth and taste. He moved like he smelled blood in the water, confident that if he couldn’t find it then he could sure as hell spill it. It was a kind of charisma you could only be born with.

“Have a seat,” he made himself comfortable in the chair behind his battleship of a desk. The sunlight glinted off the lenses of his glasses blanking out his eyes from view. “Espresso?” he asked, but it wasn’t a question. Like magic, a junior associate appeared with two espressos in tiny china cups.

“Thanks,” I said. Steam rose off a fat, golden layer of crema. I dumped in two spoonfuls of sugar, but Sam drank his black.

“Have you been to see your mother?” Sam asked, like always. Mom and Sam treated one another like strangers, but Mom would always ask about Sam if she knew I’d been to see him. And Sam always asked about Mom. Every time. Without fail.

“Only briefly, she was…herself.”

La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Sam looked nostalgic.

I was ninety-percent certain Sam was my father.

“You’re my father, aren’t you?” I’d asked once when I was thirteen and I knew everything.

“What makes you say that?”

You used to date my mom before I was born.”

“What does she say about it?”

“She says Michael is my dad. He’s not.”

“There’s a big difference between someone being your dad and someone being your father. You’ll learn this.”

“I’m not stupid,” I could see the obvious similarities: the color of his skin, the shape of his eyes. Something about the way he moved, something about the way he smelled. “I have black hair. No one else in the family has black hair.”

“And you’re sure you got it from me? A lot of people have black hair,” Sam had said, but he had seemed pleased too. “So, you don’t like the father you’ve got, and you want a new one, is that it? Someone to play ball with? Take you to Boy Scouts? Tell you how to talk to girls?”

I hadn’t been sure what I’d wanted, but I wasn’t about to admit it.

“I just…” I fumbled. “I want a confidante.” I pronounced it conFYEdant.

“A confidante,” Sam repeated, pronouncing it correctly without correcting me. “Someone who can give you advice. Who you can call if you need help?”

“Yeah.”

“An advocate.”

I didn’t know what that was, but I nodded.

“Do you have any money?”

I emptied my pockets and produced a single, rumpled dollar bill and put it down on his desk. Sam pointed to it without touching it.

“This is called ‘consideration’. If I take this, you become my client,” he said. “Our conversations become con-FYE-dential.” He was teasing me now. “Is that what you want?”

The rest, as they say, is history.

“So, what’s this all about?” I wanted to know, snapping back into the present.

Sam rocked forward in his chair and set his cup and saucer down on the leather surface of a blotter, suddenly all business.

“I’ve looked into this…Hex…My resources tell me he’s likely in Mexico but if he sets foot back in the US, we’ll press criminal charges.”

“He straight up stole our money.”

“Yes. Apparently trying to cover losses from a bad investment. As long as you stayed on the road your appearance fees disguised the loss. We’ve filed against the management company—now bankrupt and defunct, of course.”

“Of course,” I put the heels of my hands over my eyes. “So, we’re broke.”

“For the time being, yes.”

“Fuuuuuuck,” I breathed. Sam scowled at the curse, but I didn’t care. If there was any time when swearing was warranted, this was it.

“In the meantime,” Sam picked the sheaf of paperwork up off his desk and flipped through the pages without really looking at them. “This contract: Lollapalooza—you signed it without asking me first.”

“I didn’t know I needed your permission.”

“My opinion, not my permission,” Sam glanced at me over the top of his glasses.

“Why? What?” I demanded, suddenly nervous. I trusted Sam. If he said there was a problem, then he knew what he was talking about. “I thought the money was good.”

“The fee is very generous for a standby act.”

“So, what’s the—”

Sam held up a hand to stop me. “But it comes at a price.”

“What kind of price?” I didn’t need any more bad news.

“Are you familiar with the concept of a Radius Clause?”

“I already don’t like the sound of it.”

“You shouldn’t.” Sam flipped over the page of the contract and held it out to me with his finger marking the place he wanted my eye to see. “It says you agree to refrain from performing any shows within a ninety-mile radius of the festival site. For one full year.”

I stared at the words on the page, speechless.

“A year?” I managed at last.

“That’s what you agreed to.”

“Can they do that?”

“I understand it’s quite common,” Sam said. “To prevent artists from undercutting festival ticket sales with shows of their own.”

“But that’s…” I searched my mental geography, “the entire Chicagoland fu—effing area.” I managed to catch the curse in my teeth just in time. “They’re gonna try to tell us we can’t do any shows in our own city for a year?”

“There’s no try,” Sam said. “It is done. You already agreed to it.”

Sign it, hate me later.

Sign it or don’t sign it, I don’t care. Have a nice fucking life.

Let’s play Lolla every year!

I’d been so relieved the day our laminates had arrived in the mail as proof that the gig was real. Really real. I’d taken to carrying it around in my pocket as proof that it all wasn’t some kind of elaborate joke at my expense. Now I wasn’t so sure. Somewhere out there, some evil fucking force was just sitting around thinking of ways to make my life difficult.

“What are my options?” I asked.

Sam flipped the contract closed and folded his hands on top of it. “First of all, you run your legal decisions by me before you sign the paperwork from now on.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m a moron.”

“I will reach out to C3. See if I can renegotiate. I suspect this clause is the reason why you were even hired to begin with.”

He was right. I could see it now: one of the other bands in the official lineup realized what losing the Chicago market for a year would do and threatened to walk, so the promoters threatened to replace them with a group of suckers too desperate to ask questions. Us. And we’d been so eager we’d bent right over and thanked them while they fucked us.

We were fucking scabs.

“I’ll deal with the legalities,” Sam said. “You prepare yourself to perform. I’ll—”

The phone on Sam’s desk buzzed discreetly.

“Yes?” he listened for a moment and then glanced at me. “Michael’s here?”

I flinched without meaning to, rattling the cup against the saucer. I forced myself to put it down.

“Tell him not now, I’m with—” Sam held out a hand; don’t go yet. I nodded. “No, very well, let him come in.” Sam hung up the phone and reclined in his chair behind the desk, the picture of ease. I tried and failed to do the same as Michael appeared in the doorway. He looked the same as ever: tall and broad as a mountain, dressed in a suit in spite of the heat and leaning on his silver-topped cane. He looked older and thinner than I remembered, but otherwise exactly the same. The ex-cop. The former Marine. Mr. Chairman-of-the-Board.

“We need to talk—” he was saying as he entered. He stopped short when he saw me. “Damen?” For just a moment his face registered surprise, then disgust; as if he had walked into a room that smelled rotten. He quickly suppressed it, but it was too late. I’d already seen it and it had gone straight through me. I bristled.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, heart racing. Everything about him got under my skin: the suit, the cane, the self-assured calm like he was king of anyplace he chose to set foot.

“When did you get into town?”

“A couple of weeks ago,” I said. “Didn’t Mom tell you?”

“Ah. No.”

I caught a glint in Sam’s eye—a small, gloating victory as he realized Michael was caught off-guard. I recognized a feud when I saw one.

“Well, here I am.”

“Welcome back.” Michael cast around for something else to say and finally landed on: “How was your tour?”

“We got kicked off. Our label dropped us. And our manager stole all our money.”

Michael absorbed this without reacting.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Was he holding his breath? “Do you need money?”

“I don’t need anything from you—” I snapped, surging to my feet before I could stop myself.

“Son—”

“Don’t call me ‘son.’”

Gentlemen. Sit. Please.” Sam’s voice was low, but it cut through our argument with a razor edge. Michael and I both fell silent, staring at one another. I could see a muscle working in Michael’s jaw as he bit back whatever he’d been about to say.

Sam gestured to a chair. Michael sat.

“I think coffee,” Sam said.

“That’s not necessary—”

But Sam was already on the phone: “Three coffees, Lillian, if you please.”

He was still in perfect control. His turf, his rules. Too perfect, I realized. He was compensating. Michael had taken him by surprise by showing up at his office. I settled into the chair, interested to see how it would play out.

Lillian came in with fresh cups of espresso which she distributed around the room. With a wave of his hand, Sam gestured for Michael to speak.

“So, what’s all this about?”

 “We should speak in private,” Michael’s eyes flickered toward me, then toward the door expectantly. “Damen, give us the room.”

“I was here first.”

“Damen, please. It’s time for you to go.” The grown-ups are talking now. I could hear the condescension in his voice and felt my neck get hot.

“Just try and make me.”

“That’s enough, Damen,” Sam said, then to Michael: “He was here first, after all. If you’d like a private discussion, we can always make an appointment.”

Michael weighed his options.

“It’s about…my mother,” he said at last with a sideways glance at me. I straightened at the mention of my grandmother with interest.

“How is Dear Grandmother?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

“I understand she came to see you,” Michael continued to Sam, ignoring me.

“Yes, a week or two ago.”

“What did you discuss?”

“You know I can’t comment on that, client confidentiality,” Sam flickered a wink in my direction. ConFYEdant. “Surely you know better than that.”

Michael had to know Sam wouldn’t tell him anything, but here he was, in cop-mode, fishing for evidence. Of what?

“So, it wasn’t about Metron, then,” Michael said. “I sit in her place on the board. Your confidence extends to me as much as to her. It must have been something personal. You were her personal legal counsel before Metron retained you.” He was good. He wasn’t asking questions; he was making statements: seeing how they landed. “She came to you in person. Well before work hours. It was something personal.” Michael watched Sam intently, gauging his reactions. “Something to do with her estate…”

Not quite a question. I felt a prickle of dread.

“Why would Dearie need to talk about her estate?” I asked.

Michael looked at me, then back at Sam.

“That’s the question, isn’t it?”

Sam shifted inside his clothes. “Surely this is a conversation which could have taken place by telephone?”

“It could have, yes. If you had taken any of my calls.”

 “I’m not at liberty to comment on your mother’s health or personal estate,” Sam said, flatly. No more winking for my benefit. No more sly humor at Michael’s expense. The truth was too close to the surface.

“Is something wrong with Dearie?” I asked. No one responded. I looked to Sam for support, but he avoided my gaze. He hated Michael, but he wasn’t going to discuss anything private in front of him. Or me.

“Damen, it’s time for you to go,” Sam said at last.

Dismissed.

I stared at him in silence for a long moment, trying to determine if he was serious.

He was.

“Fuck you, too,” I said, and walked out, letting the door slam behind me.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 9: THE GOLDEN BOY will go live Monday, August 23rd, 2021

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CHAPTER 7: EVEN STEVEN

I stayed on the roof for the rest of the night, watching thunderheads scuttle overhead until I fell asleep. I was still on the roof in the morning when I peeled my eyes open to the gray light of pre-dawn and the shrill sound of a rooster crowing directly into my earhole.

Mary May perched nearby looking pleased with himself. I was going to kill that fucking bird. I took a swipe at him and missed, startling him into fluttering half-flight out of my reach.

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

Crunnnch!

“Fuck!”

From the back of the house, I heard the grinding of an engine and the sound of Gorey shouting parking instructions at someone.

“Cut it! Harder. No—the other way—”

Crunnnnchhh!!

The roof shuddered and I scrambled to my hands and knees to crawl along the roofline until I could look down into the alley. A decrepit RV was trying to wedge itself into the space behind the house where a garage should have been. It shifted into drive and lurched forward with a grinding squeal as the fiberglass popped and sheared against the side of the house. Then it reversed once more, this time succeeding in cutting the corner and settling into the backyard with a sense of finality.

“What the fuck’s going on?” I demanded.

Gorey squinted up at me. “Oh, hey dude. Were you up there all night?”

“Don’t ‘Oh hey, dude,’ me,” I snapped at him. “What the fuck is he doing here?” I nodded to the rangy, sunburned ginger who emerged from the RV’s driver-side door.

My guitarist: Tombstone.

I hadn’t seen him since we’d howled out of Colorado in the dead of night, but now here he was standing in my back lot wearing his stupid straw hat and his stupid mirrored sunglasses staring up at me with that stupid redneck face that I wanted to punch through the back of his stupid skull. Back west, he had tried to sell my family’s heirloom silver pocket watch to an itinerant preacher, and I’d retaliated by shitting in his boots. I noted, with some satisfaction, that he was currently wearing flip-flops.

“It’s my house,” Gorey said. “I said he could park out back.”

“Don’t you have a fucking house in the suburbs?” I snapped at Tombstone, knowing full well he did. He paid every penny he earned to his ex-wife Marla and she lived in luxury up on the North Shore with his two teenage daughters, Lacey and Piper. But I also knew his welcome at Marla’s place was directly proportional to his ability to meet her support payments. And if he was here, it meant he was just as broke as the rest of us.

Tombstone gave me the finger.

“Christ on a cracker, use your words.”

Tombstone lived up to his nickname thanks to a stutter so severe he hardly ever spoke. He’d grown up poor: the third son in a family of five brothers, one sister, seven cousins, a single mother, four stepfathers, and a quadriplegic Vietnam veteran grandfather all trying to live off welfare and government cheese. It was not a family that had a single spare fuck to give about speech therapy. But whatever facility Tombstone may have lacked in speech he made up for on the guitar. Even I had to admit he was the best goddamn guitarist I’d ever seen.

Jojo’s window shrieked open, and she stuck her head out.

“Oh. My. God. What the fuck is going on out here?” She squinted at me with the special kind of scorn reserved for women woken up too early. I shouldered my way past her through the window, ignoring her protests, and thundered down the stairs to the living room.

Tombstone charged in through the kitchen door to meet me with a head full of steam. He whipped off his sunglasses and prepared to take a swing at me, but Gorey wedged himself between us to play referee; holding us apart with arms outstretched.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Hey! Give it a rest, dudes.”

Tombstone made an angry series of gestures.

“He wants to know where his guitar is,” Gorey supplied.

“I fucking heard him. Sucks, don’t it? When someone’s got your most valuable possession?” I held up the pocket watch in front of his face. “You never know what they might try to do with it. Or who they might try to fucking sell it to.”

Them was fighting words.

“Ohh, shittt.” Kilroy and Jojo backed away very slightly as Tombstone knocked my hand away with a scowl. I lunged at him, stopping myself just short of actually throwing a punch, and Tombstone flinched, then flushed red, about to punch back when Gorey caught his arm.

“Godd guyssss,” Jojo’s lazy Valley Girl vocal fry cut through the tension and brought us back to reality. “Y’all are bigger bitches than I am. Just fuck and get it over with.”

Gorey walked Tombstone backward and sat him in a threadbare recliner as I felt Jojo’s hand’s forcing me to sit on the nearest surface, which happened to be an upturned milk-crate. I shook her off, but she still loomed nearby in case I decided to try to stand up.

Kilroy waved a manila folder between us like a flag of truce.

“Lolla paperwork’s here.”

Suddenly, punching Tombstone fell to my second priority.

Kilroy extracted a sheaf of papers and scanned it avidly. “Damn, you seen these numbers?!” he asked. He held up the paper so Gorey and Jojo could see the bottom-line.

“Shit!”

“Damn.”

Gorey yanked the papers out of Kilroy’s hands and flipped through them like a kid reading a comic book. “Let’s play Lolla every year!”

“Lemme see.” I held out my hand for the papers, but Gorey didn’t hand them over.

“Hey, sooooo…we splittin’ this even or…?”

“Or what?”

“Or are you gonna, like, carve up your half in the middle like usual,” Jojo needled me.

“They’re not coming to watch you drum, dude,” I told her. “When you front the band then you can take your half wherever the hell you want.” I yanked the paperwork out of Gorey’s hands and flipped to the bottom-line. Inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief; after weeks of being broke, it looked like a number that could solve problems.

Jojo was not prepared to let me bluster my way out of answering her question.

“Oh. I’m sorry—do you want to go wave your dick on stage without the rest of us behind you?” she asked. “It’s not ‘The Damen Warner Show’.”

“Yeah, dude,” Kilroy and Gorey went to her side, flanking her like mutinous bookends.

 “Even-steven or I’m not signing—we’re not signing,” Jojo said, pulling the entire rhythm section up onto her high horse.

“Good, cuz you don’t fucking have to,” I flipped to the last page and showed it to her. There were only lines for two signatures. Mine and Tombstone’s.

When you got right down to the nitty-gritty of it, we were Tombstone’s band. He’d started it back in high school to cover grunge and punk metal back in the nineties when mainstream kids still listened to actual music, and he had a knack for the guitar like no other, but he sure as hell wasn’t a front man. I was the one who had put us on the map. It wasn’t a fucking democracy: ours were the only votes that mattered.

I signed the paperwork.

“Tombstone?”

Gorey, Kilroy, and Jojo all now turned their attention to Tombstone—the final word.

He crossed his arms, staring at me through squinted eyes, making me sweat.

“Even-steven, bro,” Kilroy said.

“Even-steven.”

“Even-steven.”

I saw the corner of Tombstone’s mouth twitch. He nodded: even-steven. What was I going to do about it? I seethed under his accusing stare, but there wasn’t much I could do. As much as I never wanted to see that soulless ginger face ever again, we couldn’t play Lollapalooza without him and I wanted to get paid. Needed to get paid. More than that, I needed to get on stage again. Needed it like I needed air.

“Fine,” I said. “Even-steven. You stay, you play, you keep the fuck away from me.” I kicked the pages across the table to him, but Tombstone didn’t reach for them. Instead, he just stared at me, chewing on a pen cap while he waited for me to sweeten the deal.

“What, already?”

He stuck out a foot significantly and wiggled his toes in the new pair of dollar store flip-flops. He puckered his lips and made a kissing noise.

“Kiss my ass,” I told him. “Never in a million years.”

Tombstone stood up like he was ready to walk out.

“Where you gonna go?” I challenged him. “With Marla? With the kids? If you had anywhere else to go, you’d be there right now.” I saw his shoulders tense as I hit a nerve. I prodded deeper. “What’s the matter? Your pockets not deep enough for her right now?”

“Gawd, low blow,” Jojo tried to head me off at the pass, but I was on a roll.

“I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold-digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke ginger.” Tombstone whirled on me and I knew I was right. “All that cash you got from selling my shit back in Last Chance—it didn’t get you very far, did it? After gas and all, maybe you had a couple hundred bucks. Bet you spent it on gifts, didn’t you? And I bet Marla loved that right up until she held out her hand for a support check and you came up empty. And she told you to get your hillbilly Hilton out of her goddamn driveway.”

Tombstone paced around a frustrated circle and kicked the coffee table, scattering beer cans and takeout containers across the room. He fronted up against me until we were chest to chest and knocked his forehead against mine. I shoved the paperwork against his chest.

“Sign it,” I said. “Hate me later.”

Tombstone hated me now. Hated me with all his guts. But he snatched the paperwork out of my hands and backed away to look at it, turning over page after page as if he were actually reading more than just the bottom-line numbers. At last, he held out a hand for a pen. Kilroy produced one from behind his ear and Tombstone scribbled his name on the dotted line: Thomas Jefferson Jackson. He dated it. Gave me the finger. Walked out of the room.

“Nice flip-flops, shitheel,” I called after him.

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CHAPTER 8: CONSIDERATION will go live Monday, August 16th, 2021

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CHAPTER 6: MARY MAY

The curse was no joke.

This is all there is, the voice in my head whispered. It was the voice of my doubt.

Usually, I was able to keep it at the edge of my thoughts by using the bright, hot light of my ambition and rage to hold at bay, but now it crept back into the forefront of my mind and settled in to stay.

This is all there is, and all there will ever be.

We’d made it to Chicago, and we were never going to make it out again. I lay supine on the filthy living room couch as the thoughts settled on me one by one, weighing me down until I didn’t have the strength to get up. Time had lost all meaning.

I forced my eyes open, expecting to see only the Cursèd Place’s derelict living room and found myself staring into the malevolent, black eye of a bad omen. The rooster was back; perched on my chest like a night hag.

“Shit!” Panic punched me in the throat, and I lurched upright startling the rooster into a hurricane of feathers and claws as it launched itself into fluttering half-flight toward the nearby coffee table.

“Gorey!” I called into the house at large, feeling my heart pounding against my ribs in panic. I wasn’t one-hundred percent certain that I hadn’t pissed myself. “GOREY!”

“Oh, good, you’re up,” Gorey appeared in the doorway to the kitchen with a bowl of cereal in his hands, stoned out of his gourd.

“What the fuck is that—” I gestured toward the rooster who was now pecking happily at scraps of leftover Italian beef from a styrofoam takeout container.

“Uhhhh…” Gorey looked at the rooster, then looked back at me as if trying to decide if this was a trick question.

“Is that your granddad’s rooster?”

“Oh, yeah. It was. Now it’s Mary May.”

“Mary May.” I thought about asking what had possessed him to name a rooster Mary May and decided the more pressing question was: “What the fuck is it doing here?”

“Uhh, you touched it, remember?” Gorey said as if this should have been obvious.

“Yeah? And?”

“And we can’t keep it in our place cuz it’s unclean?” Gorey’s tone suggested this should have been abundantly obvious to anyone who was not a very stupid child. “But this place is already cursed so…” He gestured around the squalor of the Cursèd Place with a milky spoon. I watched as the rooster tore apart a piece of pre-chewed gristle with gusto and then shat on the trash-covered coffee table.

“Take it the fuck outside,” I said.

“Ughhhhh, fine,” Gorey groaned and set down his bowl before shooing the rooster toward the back door without touching it.

“Never a dull moment around here is there?” croaked a new voice. I turned to see Kilroy, my bassist, sitting on the floor nearby preparing to take yet another rip off a giant homemade bong. He was spider thin; his long, bony limbs folded up like a collapsed umbrella. A slouching, oversized knit cap covered his shaved head, and a haze of smoke lingered in the air around him like a reeking ghost.

“Welcome to the goat rodeo,” I slumped back onto the couch to wait for my heart to stop racing. “When’d you get here?”

“Dunno. Three?” He expelled a thundercloud of smoke into the room. “Caught the last red-eye out of LAX on fucking Spirit. I had to sell my stash just to buy the ticket.”

The fact Kilroy parted with even a single ounce of his precious weed was truly a sign of dark times. Out of all of us in the band, Kilroy was the only one with any sense of numbers. Not that it mattered. Right now, the number was zero. Any bassist could count to that.

He got to his feet and he folded himself into a Downward Facing Dog.

“I’m in so much pain,” Kilroy was always in pain. He’d fractured three vertebrae in a motorcycle accident eight years ago that had curved his spine into a question mark and bounced him off the bottom end of an opioid addiction. “Any more word on Lolla?” he asked from somewhere inside his t-shirt.

“It’s legit as far as I know,” I said. “I called Chase. He’s lookin’ into it.”

“You did what?” Kilroy’s head snapped up.

“I called Chase. He’s looking into it.”

“What the hell did you have to go and do that for?!” Kilroy said in exasperation. “Chase fucking hates you.”

“No, he doesn’t, Chase loves us. We’ve made him a shit ton of money.”

“He loves the band, he hates you,” Kilroy clarified.

“What? Why?”

Before Kilroy could answer, my phone rang. I held it up: Chase.

“Speak of the devil,” I said.

“Put it on speaker.”

I put the phone on speaker and set it on the coffee table where we could all stare at it like a crystal ball foretelling our future.

“Well, Lolla’s for real…sort of,” Chase said.

“Sort of.”

“You’re not part of the official lineup—that’s been locked in for months now, but if one of the headliners doesn’t take the stage, you go on instead.”

“Fuck me.”

“Yeah, well…” There was a note of satisfaction in his voice he didn’t bother to hide.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Kilroy’s expression tighten into annoyance.

What? I mouthed at him.

You’re a motherfucker. He mouthed back.

“You get paid whether you go on or not. You get paid, I get paid,” Chase was saying.

“Way to fight for us. Really took it to the mat on this one,” I snarled at him.

“It’s free money and the money’s good.”

“Agent logic.”

“Yeahhh, about that,” Chase was smiling. I could hear it. “The agency’s dropping you. Conflict of interest.”

“Fuck you,” I said. “Don’t joke about shit like that.”

“No joke.” He was positively delighted now. “My division just got absorbed by CAA and they’ve got Avenged Sevenfold, so….”

“We were with you first,” I protested.

“Yeah, well… A7X still has a label,” Chase said. “You got jack shit. I’m sending you the paperwork. Sign it, or don’t. I don’t give a flying fuck. Have a nice fucking life.”

There was a clunk as the line disconnected with the force of an executioner’s axe.

 “Nice fucking move, Warner,” Kilroy smacked the back of my head.

“Me?! What the hell did I do?!”

“You slept with his wife, dude.”

“I did? No, I didn’t.” I couldn’t remember. Gorey was cackling so hard around a mouth full of Froot Loops that he had to sit down on the floor. Kilroy was dead serious.

“Yeah. Definitely did.”

“How do you know: were you there?”

“Regrettably.”

“Pics or it didn’t happen.”

Kilroy took out his phone and scrolled through Facebook until he found a video. The footage was shaky and handheld, shot at a distance down a backstage hallway as I retreated shirtless out of a dressing room door with a giggling Asian woman with a butterfly tattoo on the lower part of her back where my hand was disappearing beneath the waistband of her skinny jeans.

Definitely me. Definitely her.

Fuck.

*          *          *          *

I wasn’t the only one whose checkered history of sexual exploits was coming back with a vengeance: Gorey was on a rampage. The threat of impending marriage was having a measurable effect on his libido, which meant he now spent every waking moment sarging around the city, chasing down tail like his life depended on it.

I walked into my bedroom several days later to find him occupying the mattress, pinned beneath the meaty thighs of a big girl with dark hair. The girl yelped and tried to cover her breasts, but it didn’t hide anything, and it was too late anyway.

“Hey! Knock why don’t you?!” he protested.

“Dude, put a sock on the door or something.”

“I did.” Gorey propped himself up on his free arm bringing his face to tit level and gestured to where a graying tube sock was indeed fitted over the doorknob.

“Well, then close the door.”

“Dude, it’s like a million degrees up here with the door closed.”

It was a million degrees with the door open too, only marginally cooler than the sweltering living room. Scorching derecho winds had been blowing through the city all day, filling the air with dust and static electricity, and offering no respite from the heat.

“So, turn off a few computers,” I headed toward an accumulation of electronics that was beginning to spread up the wall like kudzu.

            “Don’t touch my stuff,” he said, alarmed.

            “I’m not touching your stuff.”

            “Don’t fucking touch it!”

            I liberated a bottle of whiskey that Gorey had squirreled away inside the empty case of an old computer tower, then tipped an imaginary hat in his direction.

“You’re a cum burping whore, Warner,” Gorey shouted after me as I went to the dormer window and dragged it open with an unholy shriek before climbing out through the opening. Once outside, I slammed the window shut, then pulled down my jeans to press my ass against the glass before staggering to the peak of the house.

It was cooler here, but the shingles still radiated heat from the day. Overhead, heat lightning leaped from cloud to cloud while the trees creaked and swayed in sympathy. I flopped down on the eastward face of the roof and stared at the skyline of downtown across the dark silhouette of the park.

Up until our luck gave out, OBNXS had been half of the act on the Twins of Mayhem tour: a double headliner with a band called Man of Snakes, an aging crew of stupendous posers left over from the goth-punk era. They thought we were obnoxious wannabes. We thought they were self-important has-beens. Our fans hated one another. The whole concept of the tour was flawed from the get-go, but the money was good and Hex had been insistent so we’d gone along with it. Then Hex disappeared, and Man of Snakes slithered on without us—taking with them our crew, our production equipment, our transportation and all the hype they could handle.

Meanwhile, we were living in a cursed house in the armpit of Chicago—where music blared from doorsteps and car stereos, and the sidewalk in front of the house was given over to a semi-continuous fistfight. On the corner, a cluster of heavyset Puerto Ricans in oversized t-shirts and flat-brimmed baseball caps were doing a robust business of handshakes and high fives that implied an exchange of goods.

I watched as an inevitable squad car turned onto the street with its flashers going, no doubt called down by one of the neighbors about the noise. They cruised along the street slowly enough to determine that nobody was dead and nobody was shooting, then continued on their way without stopping. Heat like this turned the city into a welter of gun violence and the cops of Chiraq had bigger things to worry about than a noise complaint.

The whiskey was nearly gone by the time Gorey emerged from the window and scuttled up the slope of the roof to flop down beside me.

“You done fucking your way through the Greater Chicagoland Area?” I asked.

“Hey, I gotta sow my oats while I can. Time’s running out. Wedding date is set.” He settled on the roof beside me still reeking of sex and wiped the lip of the bottle with his t-shirt before taking a swig.

“Ahh. You meet your bride yet?”

“Yeah. She’s okay. Too skinny.”

“Everybody’s too skinny for you, bro,” I told him. It was true. Gorey loved the fatties.

“Granddad’s happy—that’s what counts. Made a good deal. It’s a good match. She’s smart too—smarter ‘n me, anyway. Went to college an’ everything. I’m lucky,” Gorey picked at one of the peeling shingles revealing a second layer of shingle underneath. “Y’know…with this getting married ‘n all…I might have to, you know, leave the band.”

“Ha. You’re funny.”

Gorey just waited until the words actually sank in. It took a full minute before they did.

“Wait, what? You serious?”

“I mean, I’ll be there for Lolla,” Gorey amended quickly. “But after that…I mean, it couldn’t last forever, right? We had a good run.”

“So, you’re just going to fucking bail?”

I couldn’t imagine the band without him, and it wasn’t because of his skill as a guitarist, which was mostly made up of enthusiasm and a complete absence of fuck. We could replace a guitarist, but we couldn’t replace Gorey.

“So, what’re you gonna do instead? Bag groceries at Jewel?”

“I’ll find something. I got skills.”

“You’re a high school dropout who spent your life playing guitar and smoking pot.”

“Yeah, well, that makes two of us,” he snapped.

“I’m not the one threatening to leave!” I hated the note of pleading that was creeping into my voice. “The band needs you, dude!”

Gorey snorted. “The band needs more than me,” he said. He was right—we were in freefall and had been for a while now. Everything we’d built was dissolving like smoke.

“So, we’ve had some bad luck. We’ll be back and we’ll be bigger than ever. You’ll see.” But even I wasn’t sure I believed it anymore.

Gorey was not fooled. “This isn’t just bad luck, bro. We’re not just back at square one. We hit the bottom and we kept going. We’re drilling to fucking China right now.”

Out near the street, a dead elm succumbed to the gale with a splintering crack. It crashed onto the pavement, pulling down the power lines with it and plunged the block into darkness around us. Gorey waved at it as if this somehow proved his point.

 “Come onnn,” he pleaded. “Even if we make some kind of comeback, somehow, I mean, what then? Write another album? Disappear on the road for eight months out of the year? I’m getting married, dude. I’m gonna start a family. What kind of a life is that for my kids if I’m never around?”

“So, what? You’re just going to give it all up? For what? To settle down with a chick you barely know and have her squirt out a bunch of screaming brats? Happily ever fucking after?”

“Dude, I want kids, okay?” Gorey said. “I want a family and a home and, I dunno, for it all to mean something. I gotta grow up sometime.” He stood up, straddling the peak of the roof and stood over me. “What the hell are you doing with your life besides clawing your way to rock bottom and dragging the rest of us with you?”

The bald truth of this knocked the breath out of me and for a minute I just stared up at him, open-mouthed. Gorey looked away, ashamed.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, “I didn’t mean that. I just… I gotta get out while I still can. Hate me if you have to, but it’s something I just gotta do.” His shoulders slumped again, and he began to scoot down the roof toward the dormer. “I’ll leave the window open for you.”

Then he turned away, leaving me alone.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 6: MARY MAY will go live Monday, August 2nd, 2021

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CHAPTER 5: THE CURSED PLACE

I was buzzed awake the next morning by a text from my drummer Jojo:

Arriving from LA at 9. Pick me up.

There was a link to a map with a pin dropped near O’Hare which turned out to be an executive terminal set aside from the main commercial circus. The cars were sleek and black, and the clientele were fat and white. The GTO stood out in the middle of it all like a defiant middle finger. I pulled to the curb and settled in to wait.

A man in khaki slacks emerged from the concourse carrying two enormous, designer-brand suitcases He placed them like an offering at the feet of a dark-haired woman wearing a sequined top and heart-shaped sunglasses. The woman beamed and wrapped her arms around his neck in a hug that was all tits and pointed toes, but her expression faded when she caught a glimpse of me over the man’s shoulder.

I waved.

The woman rolled her eyes, and mouthed the words ‘save me’ but quickly snapped back into a smile as the man broke the embrace and reached into his pocket to press a fold of cash into her hand. A cocked head.

Oh, no—you shouldn’t have.

Please, it was my pleasure.

My mind played the dialogue without needing to hear it.

A kiss on the cheek. A slap on the ass. Giggle, giggle.

The man got into the car and drove away, leaving the woman alone on the sidewalk. She waved him out of sight, then shrugged off the affect and lit a cigarette, waving me forward.

“Hey baby, you lookin’ for a date?” I called to her out the window.

Jojo leaned down to peer at me over the tops of her sunglasses. The wide collar of her shirt gapped open to her waist. I could smell cloves and some kind of expensive perfume.

“Took you long enough.”

“Didn’t want to cramp your style with your Biggest Fan,” I said.

“His name is Thackery.”

“Thounds thpecial.”

“He has his own jet.” Jojo blew smoke out her nose.

“And all you had to do was…?”

“Let him massage my feet during the flight.” She kept her face straight. I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or not. I shook my head.

“You and your fans.”

I’d been friends with Jojo since kindergarten: back when she was still a shy, chubby, half-Korean kid with scuffed knees named Joseph. Since then, she’d spent every cent she ever made on gender confirmation surgery. There was no doubt about where she stood on the gender spectrum now.

“You getting in, or what?”

“You gonna help me with my bags?”

“I haul enough shit around for you with your fucking drum kit. Handle your own baggage.”

“Bitch, please, you don’t have enough room for my baggage.”

I climbed out of the drivers’ seat and went around the back to unlock the trunk and watched her load in her two giant suitcases, struggling under the weight of them.

“Thanks for fucking nothing.” She brushed her hair back from her sweaty forehead with the backs of her manicured fingers.

“How do you need two giant suitcases? All your clothes are the size of dish towels.”

“A girl needs options.”

“Whatever, dude.”

Jojo climbed into the passenger seat, tugging uselessly at the hem of her high-waisted shorts as her bare legs landed on the hot leather. She pulled a face. “This fucking city.”

“Yeah, this fucking city,” I said. I pulled into traffic and immediately found myself mired in congestion creeping towards the exit.

“How long are we gonna be in town for?”

“I dunno. At least through Lolla, right? So, a month?” I hoped. I hadn’t given it much thought: it wasn’t like there was anything waiting for us back in LA.

“Maybe we should stay awhile.”

“Hell no.”

“Oh, come on,” she whined, “we’ve been on the road for months. I’m sick of living out of a suitcase.”

“But Chicago? You hate Chicago.”

“No, you hate Chicago,” she said “Chicago, LA, I don’t really fucking care, but Tombstone wants to see his kids—”

“Don’t talk to me about Tombstone—”

“—and Gorey’s got his family here. I’m tired of babysitting Kilroy on the road. It’s a nightmare keeping the dealers away. Just cuz he’s not freebasing anymore doesn’t mean he’s not an addict—”

“Chicago’s not going to fix that.”

“No, but he’ll be able to have a regular group for a change. Let them handle his sobriety. I still like getting fucked up.”

I resisted the urge to tell her that Tombstone had sold off all her pills.

“Where’re you staying?” I asked, finally accelerating onto the highway.

Jojo huffed out a breath. “I dunno. I’m as broke as you are, dude.” She ran a hand through her hair, pinning it back from her face in the buffeting wind from the window. I glimpsed myself reflected in her sunglasses.

“You not stayin’ with khaki Thackery?”

“Gawd, no. It’s his week with the kids—can you imagine me in the suburbs?”

I couldn’t.

“Gorey’s got a place,” I said. “I haven’t seen it, but he says it’s cursed.”

“Sounds chah-ming.”

*          *          *          *

It was not charming. It was a shitheap.

Gorey hadn’t been exaggerating about the state of the property: it was a derelict Chicago bungalow constructed of brick and misery a few blocks away from Humboldt Park. The first-floor windows were boarded up and mossy shingles sagged down over crumbling brickwork and flaking lead paint. There was a padlock on the front door that Gorey struggled with for so long, I worried he might not be using a key. When he finally shouldered the door open, a musty wheeze of air poured out, fluttering the ribbon ends of police tape stuck to the door frame.

“What the fuck happened here?” Jojo asked.

“A squatter died.” Gorey shrugged. “Don’t worry—they decided it was natural causes.”

“Wait, someone died in there?” I stopped on the threshold without going in.

“People die all sorts of places, dude.”

Reluctantly, I followed him inside.

“Hotter ‘n hell in here.” Jojo stepped into the oven-like heat, fanning herself with the collar of her shirt. Sweat was already dripping down my back. A needle of light found its way around the plywood on the windows cutting a bright line through the murk. Gorey fumbled for a light switch and flicked it on.

“Front room. Kitchen. Dining room ‘round the side.” Gorey pointed to the spaces on the side of the entrance. “Bathroom in the back. Bedrooms upstairs. Basement. Fully furnished.”

“Do the bedbugs cost extra?” I asked.

“They carpet-bombed the place.”

The front room had a pad of green shag carpet spread over a scuffed wood floor. An ancient sofa was shoved in the corner; one broken leg was propped up on a brick. The dining room windows had been bricked up with cinderblocks.

“Where’d they find the body?” Jojo wanted to know.

Gorey shrugged again. “The bathroom, I think? A cleaning service hadda come out and drain all the plumbing.” He stumped up the stairs. The bedroom was divided into two claustrophobic halves beneath the sloping roof. One half had a dormer window that was painted shut. The furnishings consisted of a warped dresser and a single, slumped, queen-sized mattress on the bare floor. The previous owner still resided there in the form of a large yellow sweat stain pooled in the bottom of a body-shaped divot.

The other half of the room was the shell of a little girl’s room: oppressively pink and papered with Hello Kitty stickers.

“Guess we know which room is yours,” I said to Jojo as she gingerly stepped inside to survey the space. Her face was already sculpted into a grimace of distaste. Hustling Gorey back through the dividing wall I slammed the door and wedged it shut with a wooden shim.

“Hey!” I heard Jojo jiggle the doorknob uselessly and then pound on the door with the flat of her hand. “You’re a dickless faggot, Warner!” she yelled. “Open this door before I chum your gnarled choad, you fucking blue waffle!”

Jojo’s repertoire of swears was unparalleled for its range and scope. It would be a while before she ran out of names to call me, so I slung an arm over Gorey’s shoulder and ushered him back down the stairs so we could talk.

“Well?” he asked. “You still want it?”

It was the worst fucking house I’d ever seen, but we needed a place to live. From upstairs I heard Jojo begin to hammer at the walls of her prison with one of her shoes.

“Jojo likes it,” I said, “and, you know, women, amiright?”

There was an audible creak as Jojo managed to pry the plywood off the upstairs window, followed by the sound of glass shattering and a gentle rain of shards on the side walkway. Gorey hastily undid the bolts on the plywood over the side window and stuck his head out in time to see Jojo sling a leg over the upstairs window frame and stretch her bare toes toward a crumbling stone cornice. Gorey stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled.

“Lookin’ good, hotpants.”

“Don’t start with me, you motherless mongrel turd.”

“C’mon, baby, give us a smile,” I piled on. “Show us your tits.”

“I’m gonna punch you in the nuts so hard your grandkids are gonna fucking feel it,” Jojo snarled, climbing down the side of the house like a cat burglar. She made it down to the sidewalk and hurled a shoe at us through the window with the full force of a drummer’s upper body strength. It hit the far wall hard enough that the stiletto heel embedded itself in the plaster. “We’ll take it,” I said.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 6: MARY MAY will go live Monday, August 2nd, 2021

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CHAPTER 4: MOTHER

Quetzalez was waiting for me when I arrived at the storage facility. I pulled the Bandwagon to a halt in front of the rolling door to my unit, nose-to-nose with the gleaming, black town car he drove for my folks.

“Damen!” Quetzalez opened his arms to me with a joviality that was both genuine and over-bright. He was somewhere in his mid-forties, but he still hadn’t outgrown slicking his hair into some kind of rockabilly pompadour. Tattoos ran the length of his arms from below his ears all the way to the second knuckles of each finger.

A movement caught my eye through the dim glass of the windshield of the town car and I could make out a crown of fair hair in the back seat: he hadn’t come alone. My stomach dropped.

“You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“I told you I was driving your mom around,” Quetzalez said.

“Dude, you promised.”

Quetzalez held up his hands. “I said no one would hear it from me: but she was in the car when you called. She heard it for herself.”

“Fuck,” I grimaced, but let it go. “You know what? Fine. Whatever. Give me my keys.”

Quetzalez shook his head. “Sorry, buddy; boss wants a word with you first.”

“Hell, no.”

“She’s your mom, kid.”

“Oh, well in that case: fuck no.”

Quetzalez fixed me with a look that suggested I was overreacting and failed to produce any keys. “C’mon, it’s not like you were going to be able to keep it a secret forever. Might as well get it over with. Rip off the band-aid.”

I glared at him. “I hate you for this.”

“Uh-huh,” Quetzalez produced a tobacco tin from one pocket and began to roll a cigarette, unconcerned. I sighed and opened the door to the car.

Mom sat in the expensive, upholstered silence of the back seat of the town car like a marble queen. Thin as a willow. Cold as frost. She nodded to the seat beside her.

“Get in.”

I did.

“Close the door.”

A thick, snowy silence settled around me in the dim alcove of the town car. I couldn’t remember when I’d seen her last, but it didn’t really matter—she never changed. It was as if I’d put her away in my memory and she’d stayed there without moving or aging until I called her up again. Her gray eyes traced over my piercings, taking a deliberate mental inventory. I fidgeted under her scrutiny, feeling like something that had been scraped up off the side of the road.

“Say something, will you?”

“Something,” Mom said. She didn’t mean it as a joke. I was pretty sure.

She reached out to smooth my hair and I felt a needle-prick of pain at my temple.

“You’re going gray,” she held up a strand to me—blue at the tip, gray at the root. I stared at it with a sense of numb futility.

“Yeah, well, I’m thirty now.”

“I know. I was there when you were born.”

“Har har, Mom.”

Mom smiled but gave a weighty sigh. “No one warns you what it is like to look at your children and to see them as adults growing old. Not that thirty is old.” She tweaked my nose. Reaching out a hand to my cheek she brushed one of the studs on my lip.

“This one is new.” Her eyes flickered back and forth between one ear and the other. “And this—” a cuff through the cartilage of my left ear. “Who were you trying to forget?”

“Do you care?”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” She let the subject drop. “You’ve been on the road now for…eighteen months?” She asked it like a question she already knew the answer to. “Are you finished now?”

“Oh, I’m finished alright.” I hated the truth of it. “The record label dropped us. Our manager is MIA. Our agent won’t return my calls, and I’m unemployed and broke and homeless…” The more I spoke the more the words turned to acid in my mouth.

Mom remained unfazed.

“Yes, that’s the way it goes sometimes I’m afraid, but I’m pleased you’re back,” she smiled, but it only made it as far as her mouth. Her eyes were still and cool.

“You don’t have to pretend for my benefit.”

“I never do.”

Sometimes I wondered if Mom was on the spectrum.

 “How long will you be in town? You’ll be staying with us I presume? We have plenty of room.” The thought of sharing a steel-and-chrome corporate condo down in the Loop with Mom and Michael sounded like a slice of hell.

“Fuck no.”

Mom’s fingers caught my arm near the elbow and pinched a nerve until my hand went numb. I gasped at the pain and Mom caught my jaw in her other hand and forced me to meet her stare. “Don’t curse in front of me, you wretched child,” she growled between clenched teeth.

I swallowed hard and nodded. Mom released my arm and let her fingers trail down my jawline as if reluctant to let me go. She took a deep breath and sat back in her seat, once again as tranquil as deep water.

 “Your father and I—”

“Michael’s not—”

Mom held up a hand to cut me off before I could get started.

 “You’re always welcome. You know that.”

I bit my tongue until I could taste blood.

“Am I free to go?” I asked.

Mom sighed. “Yes, I suppose so.” She pressed her lips to my cheek leaving a stain of lipstick on my cheekbone: as much a declaration of territory as a gesture of affection. “I’m glad you’re back. Let me know where you land.”

I climbed out of the town car and glared at Quetzalez.

“Ambush me like that again and I will set you on fire,” I told him.

“That bad, huh?” Unconcerned, Quetzalez licked the paper of the cigarette and stuck the end between his lips without lighting it. Fishing around in his pocket, he extracted a set of keys on a threadbare rabbit’s foot keychain and held them out to me. I reached out to take them but Quetzalez didn’t let it go—not right away.

“Good to have you back. I mean it, kid.”

“Thanks. You’re the only one who thinks so.”

He brushed a finger against the side of his nose. “Cuz I’m smarter ‘n everybody.”

I smiled in spite of myself and he relinquished the keys into my hand. I flipped through the keys on the ring looking for the one that went to the padlock on the storage unit. A plain brass house key caught my eye. I held it up.

“What’s this?”

“My spare. In case you need a place to crash. You know the rules.”

No sex. No drugs. No rock and roll.

Ironic, since he had been the one to teach me about all of those things. I’d never dared to test him on it. Of everyone trapped in the orbit of my family, he was the only one willing to call me on my shit and still put up with me anyway.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Jagoff.” The corners of Quetzalez’ eyes crinkled as he lit his cigarette and took a drag.

 I unlocked the unit, hauling the rolling door open with a mighty rumble to reveal a ’67 Pontiac GTO, painstakingly restored to gleaming factory perfection: The Goat. Quetzalez gave a whistle.

“Ahh, so that’s where it’s at,” he said, recognizing it. “Does Edward know you got his GTO?”

“It’s my GTO,” I said. “I bought it.”

“Uh-huh.” Quetzalez was not fooled. “And it was your brother who busted his ass fixing it up.” This was true: my brother Edward found The Goat listed at a sheriff’s auction for a couple grand back when it was a wreck. Money had been no object at the time, so I’d bought it to spite him and told him he could restore it and then buy it from me when he had the money. Every improvement Edward made to it raised its value: the better he made it the farther it got from his reach, but he’d just kept working on it anyway. Working on it until it was perfect. Hell would freeze over before he had enough money to buy it from me.

“Yeah, well, I still got the title,” I said.

“Christ, you’re a dick.” Quetzalez shook his head. “One of these days, Edward’s gonna tell you to jump in the lake and you’re gonna deserve it.”

“Bitch please, Edward loves me,” I released the jack-stands until the Goat’s tires settled on the cement, then put it in neutral and rolled it out of the unit to make room for the gear.

“Edward loves everybody. Doesn’t mean you deserve it.”

“You wanna rub it in a little more or you gonna help me unload?” I bit back at him. Quetzalez just feigned innocence. “Who me? I just work here,” A knocking sound came from the direction of the town car and Quetzalez grinned. “Speaking of which: duty calls.” He licked his fingers to extinguish the cigarette, tucking it back into the tin for later before giving my shoulder a parting slap. “See you ‘round, kid. Try to stay out of trouble.”

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 5: THE CURSED PLACE will go live Monday, July 26th, 2021

Don’t want to wait? Purchase a copy of the full book here: www.amazon.com

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